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Worse Off Than Ever – Two Perspectives on Current German Cinemaen

Director Klaus Lemke with “Berlin For Heroes” actress | Copyright: © Klaus Lemke Privatarchiv
Director Klaus Lemke with “Berlin For Heroes” actress | Copyright: © Klaus Lemke Privatarchiv

About the current state of German cinema, opinions differ greatly. Healthier today than ever, say some; on the verge of the abyss, say others. Oliver Baumgarten slips into the two perspectives. Part Two: German film has never been worse off.

Not everyone familiar with the industry comes to the preliminary conclusion that German film has never had it so good. In the current discussion there are more and more people that see the situation very differently. If we slip into the point of view of those that find German film has never been worse off, the previously cited figures take on a different aspect.

“Halt auf freier Strecke” by Andreas Dresen | Copyright: © Rommel Film; Photo: Andreas Dresen
In 2011, then, 132 German (feature) films were premiered, the market share was 21.8 percent, and there was a total of 129 million viewers. Even if it may not be quite fair to compare these figures with those from the heyday of German cinema, it remains true that in 1955, at the height of the German post-war film industry, though only 122 German (feature) films were premiered, the market share was 47 percent – and the total number of viewers was 766 million!

Assuming annual funding of 350 million euros for German films, this means that every viewer of a German film is subsidized at € 12. Compared with subsidies for theater and opera, that may be a negligibly small sum. But in view of those who rave about the great success of German film, it still seems more than dubious.

Quantitative wealth – qualitative poverty

That today there are more German films in cinemas than at a time when they had six times more viewers means above all one thing: the quantitative wealth of German films conceals its qualitative poverty. The flood of German films (two to four new films every week) brings with it almost only drawbacks: for example, that there are far too many merely average quality films to see. The majority of German films are, in form and content, not worth the effort of distributing.

“Unter Dir die Stadt” by Christoph Hochhäusler | Copyright: © Piffl Medien
The result: the brand “German film” is watered down more and more with every week, the trust of the audience dwindles. Week after week viewers are faced with the problem of sifting the worthwhile films from the less worthwhile. The numbers from 2011 show the result: award-winning festival successes, indisputably good films, do not reach the audience: Sleeping Sickness (Schlafkrankheit) by Ulrich Köhler had 21,000 viewers, The City Below (Unter Dir die Stadt) by Christoph Hochhäusler only 14,000. And Andreas Dresen’s unanimously acclaimed Stopped on Track (Halt auf freier Strecke), with 50,000 viewers, managed only with great difficulties to qualify for funding from the Federal Film Board.

Film as an industry

That so many films reach the movie theater has to do with the distribution requirement sometimes bound up with funding. To qualify for a grant from the German Federal Film Fund, for example, the producers of a film must show that already prior to the production of a film, a distribution company has guaranteed the film’s distribution with a pre-defined number of copies. And even if all the parties were later to agree that the completed film had no prospects with the public, it would still have to be released, and so stand in the way of promising films.

“Schlafkrankheit” by Ulrich Köhler | Copyright: © Farbfilm Verleih
Basically, we can say that the promotion of film in Germany has a clear tendency to develop into economic promotion. For the sake of the industry, sponsors are fundamentally interested in economic success. Film today is seen above all as an industry and not as art or a cultural possession – this has been fostered by the policy decisions of recent years. “Film” is linked to location factors, and on these in turn depend jobs and complex economic and social structures.

The work of film promotion has more than ever become an economic act, with the result that even the various federal states have entered into stiff competition with each other. This is actually a political and economic competition among locations. It is about jobs more than it is about cultural issues. In this self-made situation it is not surprising that there should be a trend to funding proven forms, stories and names. The air on which artistic risk lives is getting thinner and thinner, because the public image of funding institutions is also at stake and uncertain ventures may endanger it.

The often mentioned lack of courage to take risks, of which some critics like to accuse film-makers, may also be found in institutions and hampers the development of German cinema. The abundance of available money, the closeness to TV and the attempted industrialization of film has led to a dangerous comfortableness. The previously mentioned diversity of German cinema is deceptive: the films being made resemble one another more and more in form and presentation, so that it is only a question of time before the audience again turns away entirely from German film.

Off the beaten path

“Halbe Treppe” by Andreas Dresen | Copyright: © Rommel Film
In order to do things differently, to realize different forms of presentation and fill them with different content, film-makers are therefore simply working more and more without subsidies – that is, independently in the true sense of independent films. In 2002, for instance, completely independently and with considerable courage, Andreas Dresen together with the producer Peter Rommel tried out a new narrative style made possible by digitalization. For sponsors, the project would have been too risky, since Grill Point (Halbe Treppe) was shot without a script and was therefore practically uncontrollable. Today Grill Point is one of the major milestones in the dramatic development of recent German cinema.

“Berlin für Helden” by Klaus Lemke | Copyright: © Klaus Lemke Privatarchiv
And then there is Klaus Lemke, who in the guise of an enfant terrible has denounced “state cinema” and rather drastically called for abolishing film subsidies. For decades Lemke has shot a film every year which, with the exception of one television cooperation, have been entirely self-financed. His method of working is also unusual: he casts his main characters using people in the street and lets the story develop out of them during the shooting. The results are certainly not films for a mass audience, but thanks to the relatively low budget that is not necessary: Lemke’s form of artistic expression has always found its viewers. His new film, Berlin for Heroes (Berlin für Helden), was released nationally in 2012.

“Bedways” by R. P. Kahl | Copyright: © Independent Partners Film
RP Kahl has also worked independently in this sense for years. With 99 Euro Films (2002) he and Torsten Neumann initiated a widely acclaimed project beyond television and subsidies. He has also self-financed his most recent feature film Bedways, since its theme (the presentation of explicit sexuality in the media) would have made public funding impossible. And Kahl has been successful: he has been able to market the film with a profit.

One final example: Axel Ranisch and his film Fat Girls (Dicke Mädchen). To realize this film he too completely freed himself from the constraints, structures and requirements of external subsidies and, entirely without sponsors, improvised a little story about quirky and loveable characters.

“Dicke Mädchen” by Axel Ranisch | Copyright: © Sehr gute Filme
These are only a few examples of films that could not have been made within the subsidy system. That the German funding system seldom rewards such courage is one of the reasons that a faction in the industry certifies German cinema to be in a bad state. A popular demand from this perspective is to strengthen cultural film funding, perhaps even to separate cultural from economic funding. Some would like to see funding bodies abolished, or at least have film-makers themselves decide on the awarding of grants and so establish clear substantive criteria.


The discussion about the future of German cinema will move between these two pointedly presented poles. There will be suggestions that will be recognized across party lines and can be relatively swiftly implemented. For example, in the course of the discussion about the fifth amendment of the Film Promotion Act, which is to go into effect in 2014, the industry has itself broached the question of the distribution requirement and already put forth constructive proposals.

There remain, however, other, fundamental problems, about which agreement will not be reached so swiftly. The gap between the cultural and the economic understanding of film, for instance, is now so wide that it will not be easy to bridge. Nor is this discrepancy a new one. Since the day of its invention, film has moved between the marketplace and the avant-garde – and each has always been beneficial to the other in developing the medium.

The point at which art ceases and commerce begins will never be definitively defined, and it is not really so important that it be. Decisive seems rather that films can be made within a system that avoids hampering the development of cinema and instead promotes it in the truest sense of the word. From whichever perspective we join in the discussion, we should together examine the existing system with respect to this key question.

To Part 1: Never Had It So Good

Oliver Baumgarten
is a film scholar and works as a journalist, curator and lecturer, based in Cologne. This article is adapted from a lecture he gave at the 2012 Berlinale.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
May 2012

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